Editorial: VTA needs a culture change to improve worker morale
The Guadalupe light rail yard in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    One year ago today, nine people lost their lives in a mass shooting among more than 100 workers on site at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Agency. They ranged in age from 29 to 63. They left families, friends and co-workers who would never hear “good morning” or “good night” again.

    From that moment on, nine VTA employees and the shooter, who took his own life, became part of a statistic no one ever wants to claim—one of 7.8 people per 100,000 residents killed by guns in California, according to the Giffords Law Center. Our state has an average of 3,160 gun-related deaths a year.

    On May 12, VTA razed Building B where the tragedy and trauma occurred. The public transit agency wanted to make sure no one would ever step foot in that facility at the Guadalupe Light Rail Yard in downtown San Jose again, as it should be.

    Demolishing a building is easy. But out of sight out of mind doesn’t work when it comes to the emotional scars left by such a traumatic event. Internal pain in that psychological wake is harder to eliminate. Henry Gonzales was one of those VTA workers who couldn’t shake the pain. In the weeks that followed the shooting, PTSD and depression overwhelmed him, his brother-in-law Julio Calderon said last year. Three months later, Gonzales took his own life.

    As the days passed and the investigation deepened in an effort to understand what set off the 57-year-old VTA technician-turned-shooter Samuel Cassidy, it became apparent the agency’s work culture had been fermenting an unhealthy environment for years. In September, management announced plans to hire a consultant to turn the eroded workforce culture around.

    In the year since the shooting, VTA employees say bullying, harassment and toxic issues within the agency continue to fester.

    VTA CEO and General Manager Carolyn Gonot—who was thrust into an extraordinary situation and appointed to the position just days before the mass shooting—said services would be provided to help workers heal. She had to know the culture, having worked at VTA for more than two decades before returning to lead the agency.

    But a deeply ingrained problem doesn’t right itself overnight, something’s gotta give. Communication between management, unions and even board members needs to turn that corner from pain to promise of a better working environment. Everyone needs to sit at that table and start hashing things out.

    Yes, the agency has a full menu of concerns, from financials to lawsuits. But the one constant is the 2,100-strong workforce—of which about 90% is represented by unions. An agency is only as good as the people behind it. That tenet holds true for any business.

    We lost nine people in a senseless killing. These individuals are not coming to work today. Instead they are being memorialized as husbands, fathers, siblings and sons.

    In California, someone is killed by a gun every three hours on average, according to the Giffords Law Center. Think about that for a moment. In a 24-hour period, we lose eight people every day in our lives. On May 26, 2021, we lost more. We must not allow ourselves to become hardened to this reality. We are better than that.

    Moryt Milo is San José Spotlight’s editorial advisor. She has more than 20 years of experience in Silicon Valley journalism, including roles as the editor for the Silicon Valley Business Journal and as a reporter and editor with the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers. Follow Moryt at @morytmilo on Twitter and catch up on her monthly editorials here

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